After a substandard season, Mark Richt made the only decision that would make a complete turnaround possible.
He fired Willie Martinez and two other defensive coaches.
In doing so, he sent a clear message to everyone inside the program as to just who is in control at the University of Georgia. On a personal level, it had to be one of the most difficult decisions Richt has ever made as a football coach. His real-life decision affected friendships, families, and careers.
But, it was not only the right decision, it was the only decision.
Along with Martinez, two other coaches—linebackers coach John Jancek and defensive ends coach Jon Fabris—were let go, leaving Rodney Garner as the only coach retained on the defensive side of the ball. Essentially this clears the way for a new defensive coordinator to bring in a staff of his own.
Richt’s decision was swift and decisive. There were those who wondered if Richt would pull the trigger at all. Some thought that he would merely demote Martinez and allow him to return to his position as defensive backs coach.
By wiping out the entire defensive staff, save Garner, Richt did more than put window dressing on a lingering issue. He started a process that can lead to meaningful change.
Richt’s management style, on the defensive side, has been very hands off. He provides his coaches with a lot of leeway. But when leeway leads to undisciplined and uninspired play, a lack of control can set in. Richt had to get that control back, or risk disintegration of the program he has built.
This year in particular, Georgia did not have a philosophy or an identity, not just on defense, but in many areas.
The offense often struggled with penalties and turnovers, and at times appeared to abandon its game plan easily.
On special teams, the Bulldogs were abhorrent. Opponents often started out with great field position thanks to chunks of yardage given up by poor kick-coverage, late hit penalties, and kicks out of bounds—all related to Fabris’ directional kick philosophy. With strong-legged kicker, Blair Walsh kicking off, many questioned whether attempting to kick it out of the end zone was a better option.
The defense, sometimes undeservedly, bore the brunt of the criticism. Due to ill timed turnovers, dumb penalties and poor special-teams coverage, Martinez’s unit often took over having to defend a short field. But too often, offenses shredded the Bulldogs defense. Poor tackling, lack of aggressiveness and a penchant for giving up big plays brought Martinez under fire.
All of the above, not just one area, led to a below-average season. The Kentucky game late in the season was a microcosm of the whole year—one half of total dominance and one half of epic meltdown.
With two minutes left and three timeouts still available, Richt saw over his shoulder waves of red and black flowing out of Sanford Stadium, which was all he needed to see to know that he was losing control of the program—from the coaches, to the players, and now even to the fans.
The firing of someone was necessary. The firing of these three coaches in particular showed just how committed Richt is to changing what happened this season.
Of all the coaches on staff, the three who were fired may have been the hardest ones to fire based on their histories with, and loyalty to, Richt.
Jancek had been on staff since 2005, and just last year turned down a defensive coordinator position at another school to stay with Richt.
Fabris was one of four coaches who were on the original staff Richt brought with him to Athens in 2001. A few years back he took a similar position at Oklahoma, but then changed his mind and stayed on with Richt.
Martinez, another one of Richt’s original staff, played college ball with him at Miami. Speculation abounded about whether Richt would fire Martinez due to the closeness of their friendship.
Richt did what needed to be done. Change was needed to bring something fresh and new to a program that was starting to underachieve.
But this was more than just the firing of a few coaches, this was a power grab. This was Mark Richt taking back the reins of the program that he had delegated to others.
On the sideline against Georgia Tech, Richt looked different. He was more animated, more motivated and more engaged that at any time in recent years.
Up 17-3 at the half, going into the locker room, Richt blared “They hadn’t done anything yet” referring to the impending second half, and the memory of last year’s third-quarter debacle against Tech fresh in his mind.
The ultimate sign of Richt's resurgence came with just over a minute left in the game. With the game all but won, and only the formality of running out the clock in the victory formation left, Bryan Evans gave Richt the obligatory PowerAde bath after which Richt immediately turned around and dressed him down yelling “no smiles til there are all zeroes” pointing at the clock.
This was the Mark Richt that Dawg fans have wanted back all year. This was the Mark Richt of “Finish the Drill” fame. The P-44 Haynes Mark Richt. The 20-year drought breaker. The two-time SEC champion. And apparently, Mark Richt, the new Donald Trump.
This is the Mark Richt that will do whatever it takes to make the Georgia Bulldogs winners once again. Jesus move over, Mark Richt has taken the wheel.